Presidential Kitchen Confidential: African Americans Who Fed The Presidents

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<p>(Courtesy Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center/UNC Press)</p>
<p>Domestic staff for President Hayes, March 1877. </p>

Editor's note: This story originally aired February, 13, 2017.

With a new president in office, there's a lot of talk about cabinet nominations and advisors. But other people work closely with the president -- the ones who feed him. And through the years, many of them have been black. For his new book, Denver author Adrian Miller identified at least 150 African-Americans who served the president -- as cooks, stewards and other culinary workers. Some were slaves who desperately wanted their freedom. Others were so trusted they were asked for political advice.

Miller’s new book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet," looks at prized presidential recipes and personal food quirks. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, learned to love macaroni and cheese while serving as U.S. minister to France. He bought a macaroni machine in Naples, Italy, had it shipped to his residence and made sure his cooks knew how to use it. Richard Nixon surprised the White House staff on inauguration night with a request for cottage cheese -- the head butler got in a limousine and searched the town until he found his prize at a deli. Nixon, btw, loved his cottage cheese garnished with ketchup. And the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson endured a mini-scandal when it published the recipe for the president's favorite chili, which was made Texas-style without beans.

Miller's Tales from the White House:

On Lyndon Johnson's family cook, Zephyr Wright, whose experiences Johnson cited in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act:

"The (Johnson) family would drive back and forth from Texas to Washington D.C. and when she (Wright) went along with the family she couldn't go to the bathroom with them, at the same time, she could not eat with them in the same places. it got so bad that she finally refused to make the trip, and so Johnson would say to members of Congress 'it's a shame that the president's cook has to experience this.' "

On George Washington's treatment of his slave, Hercules, who served as presidential cook when Philadelphia was the nation's capital city:

“Pennsylvania had a law that said any enslaved person who was on Pennsylvania soil for more than six months was automatically free, so the way that Washington got around that is just about the time the six-month deadline would toll, he would pack up all of his enslaved people, send them back to Mount Vernon, have them stay there a few weeks and then bring them back to start the clock anew."

On Bess Truman's fondness, or not, for Old Fashioneds:

"The Trumans would want to have some Old Fashioneds before they would have dinner at the White House. So the White House butler, a guy named Alonzo Fields, who was there for a long time, would actually go ask what they want, so they wanted the Old Fashioneds and it’s a drink with bourbon, some sugar water and some bitters. So he made the first one and Bess Truman says ‘could you make it a little drier, this is really too sweet.’ And he was like, alright, so he makes another version of it and she says ‘this tastes like fruit punch’ ... and so Fields was so frustrated that he just served her straight bourbon. She takes one sip and says ‘that’s how you make an Old Fashioned.' ”

Macaroni and cheese is often a glorious, goopy mess, but this recipe is closer to the earliest iterations of the dish. Thomas Jefferson served something like this to Rev. Manasseh Cutler when he dined at the White House on 6 February 1802.

Makes 6 servings

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 pound tube-shaped pasta, such as small penne
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small bits
  • 8 ounces imported Parmesan cheese or extra‑sharp Farmhouse cheddar
  1. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Stir together the milk and water in a large pot and bring to a boil.
  3. Add the pasta, stirring well, and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is tender, 8–12 minutes.
  4. Lightly drain it in a colander (it should still be a little wet) and return it to the pot. Season with salt to taste and toss well.

President Johnson's Pedernales River Chili:

Here’s the chili that got the Johnson administration in a lot of hot water. You may vary the heat level or taste by changing the amount or type of chile powder used. I personally like to use 1 tablespoon of cayenne chile powder and 1 tablespoon of ancho chile powder. Please note that absolutely no beans were harmed in the creation of this chili con carne!

Makes 12 servings

  • 4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder, or more to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups canned whole tomatoes
  • 2–6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2 cups hot water
  1. Place the meat, onions, and garlic in large, heavy pan or Dutch oven and cook over medium heat until light in color.
  2. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot pepper sauce, salt, and hot water and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, skimming off the fat as it cooks.

From "The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans who have fed our first families from the Washingtons to the Obamas." Copyright © 2017 by Adrian Miller. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Read an excerpt:

The Key Ingredients of Presidential Foodways

"As I always told the Negro servants and dining room help that worked for me, “Boys, remember that we are helping to make history. We have a small part, perhaps a menial part, but they can’t do much here without us. They’ve got to eat, you know.”

Alonzo Fields, "My 21 Years in the White House," 1961

You have probably heard a number of presidential conspiracy theories full of foreign intrigue, but perhaps not one that is as American as apple pie. President William Howard Taft was an apple-loving man, and it ran in the family. One newspaper reported, “The Taft family are fond of apples in almost any form. It is not publicly known that one of the invariable rules of the President and all of his brothers is to eat apples just before bedtime. This custom was started by Alonzo Taft, the father of the President, and his children have followed it consistently. Whether traveling or at home the President is never without apples.”1 One of President Taft’s favorite ways to consume the fruit was in the form of apple pie, and when he traveled by train he could get, arguably, the best apple pie on earth. President Taft owed this possibility to John Smeades, an African American man who ran the kitchen on the presidential train. One newspaper described Smeades’s apple pie as “a glory, a Lucullan feast, an eighth wonder of the world.”2 Though President Taft’s heart, mind, and stomach said “yes” to that famous apple pie, those who surrounded him—his wife, physician, and staffers—said “no” because they felt the president really needed to stay on his diet.

This temptation for President Taft presented a serious quandary for members of his staff. How could they be so close to apple pie greatness and not indulge? After all, he was the one who had to watch his weight, not them. In due time, the “Secret Order of the Apple Pie” was born with a membership consisting of the president’s key staffers: Surgeon Major Thomas L. Rhoads, Jimmie Sloan of the Secret Service, Charles D. Hilles, and Major Archie Butt. Their sole purpose was to devise a variety of schemes to eat Chef Smeades’s apple pie without President Taft ever knowing about it. But Taft invariably knew what was happening (as all presidents seem to)—when it came to food, he was hard to fool. At one point, he playfully confronted his deceptive doctor who had crumbs on his face from a recently devoured piece of pie: “ ‘Major [Rhoads], it is better to practice than to preach. Can’t I have a bit of that pie?’ ”3 Evidently, President Taft didn’t win this time, but he wasn’t always left disappointed.

Sometime around 1912, President Taft boarded a midnight train to his native Ohio and thought he was going back to a simpler place in time when he wasn’t on a strict diet. Fortunately for him, the First Lady and the president’s physician weren’t on the same train. Once the train left the station, presidential staffers Ira T. Smith and Joe Alex Morris relate, President Taft summoned the train’s conductor for an urgent request: “‘The dining car . . .’ Mr. Taft began shyly, ‘Could we get a snack?’ The conductor looked surprised. ‘Why, Mr. President, there isn’t any dining car on this train.’ The President’s sun-tanned face turned pink, with perhaps a few splashes of purple. His normally prominent eyes seemed to bulge.” Taft loudly beckoned his secretary, Charles D. Norton, to solve this problem, but Norton reminded the president of his dietary strictures and that he had already eaten dinner and wouldn’t miss breakfast. This only deepened Taft’s resolve as he continued to lobby the conductor: “ ‘Where’s the next stop, dammit?’ he asked. ‘The next stop where there’s a diner [car]?’ ”4 The conductor informed him that it would be Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Taft responded epically, “ ‘I am the President of the United States, and I want a diner attached to this train at Harrisburg. I want it well stocked with food, including filet mignon. You see that we get a diner. . . . What’s the use of being President,’ he demanded, ‘if you can’t have a train with a diner on it?’ ”5

As one might guess, the presidential train made an unscheduled stop at Harrisburg, and a dining car was attached. Right around midnight, President Taft was happily dining on filet mignon. History is silent on what cook the railroad company roused from his slumber for the awesome, probably annoying (this time at least), and nerve-wracking task of preparing the president’s late-night meal. In all likelihood, it was an African American man. Now, “My presidency for a dining car!” isn’t a political slogan that’s going to win a lot of votes with the general public, but this food-related anecdote involving President Taft poignantly shows that the presidential food story can be a mix of joy and pain, of luxury and deprivation, and usually there was an African American cook right in the middle of things.


1. “Forty Pound Turkey,” 2.

2. “Yessah, Mistah Taft.” The term “Lucullan” refers to the famous Roman general and politician named Lucullus (118–56 b.c.e.) who was known for his extravagant banquets.

3. Ibid.

4. Smith and Morris, Dear Mr. President , 67–68.

5. Ibid., 68.



Those who watch cooking competition shows and reality shows about restaurants on television probably think of a professional kitchen as a place where arrogant, self-absorbed chefs terrorize line cooks with abusive language and impossible demands. It appears that Hercules was that kind of chef. Custis observed, “The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his discipline, wo [sic] to his underlings if a speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.”20 Evidently, Hercules ran a very tight ship: “His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to posses the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same time.”21 What made Hercules so demanding? Was it his natural temperament? Was he reacting to a stressful environment? Perhaps it was just learned behavior from President Washington, who had a very bad temper, or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, Hercules possessed a personality well-suited to being a demanding chef.

Though the Washingtons were pleased with Hercules’s cooking, having an enslaved chef in Pennsylvania created political and logistical headaches as well as a potential public relations nightmare for them. Annoyingly for President Washington, prior to him taking residence in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania state legislature had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. This law freed any enslaved person who stayed on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six continuous months. To skirt the law, President Washington decided, after considerable research and consultation, that the best course of action would be to send all of his slaves back to Mount Vernon every time the six-month deadline was about to toll. They would stay at the plantation for a few weeks and then return to Philadelphia to restart the “freedom clock.” President Washington surmised that his slaves, especially Hercules, were well aware of the law, and at one point late in his second presidential term, he accused Hercules of plotting to escape. According to Tobias Lear, Hercules was visibly upset that President Washington would even suspect him of such betrayal. 22


20. Custis, Recollections , 422.

21. Ibid., 423.

22. Holland, The Invisibles , 53–54.